The End of the Jet Age: America After 2020

After World War II, highways and suburbs reshaped the United States from coast to coast. In a decade, a nation that was cities and farms had a third option for millions of young families. Malls, fast food, lawn mowing and commutes to the city became commonplace.

In the years since, America settled into a monoculture of nondescript suburbs surrounding nearly every city from Miami to Seattle. There might be slight differences and different climates between the suburbs of Austin and Minneapolis, or Raleigh and Phoenix, but in all of them and many others you are, generically, in early 21st-century America.

American suburban expansion had a good run. But history will show that 1945-2020 was one historical period, and a virus that swept in from China marked a new time in our history. How different things will feel depends on how you lived in the years leading up to 2020.

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

William Gibson, The Economist, 2004

While concern for disease and urgently keeping the distance between people will fade, the biggest shift resulting from this truly unique year is that much of the business world, as well as churches, universities, and school districts realized they could, in fact, work, communicate, collaborate, play and interact remotely.

This shift certainly won’t be welcomed by all. There will be months and years ahead of argument to defend the way things were, as there always is, and long essays and podcasts and political speeches about the importance of place. Or at least, of places. Why kids need to sit in classrooms like the Victorian Era. Why offices need in person meetings and to monitor employees attendance. But the future was already previewed, and it won’t just go away quietly.

Which leads to the suburban sprawl – the communities of America. The chain reaction of remote work is enormous, and will reshape the landscape in ways that you must be at least 70 to remember first hand. Once a sizable percentage of us don’t have to drive to work, and especially once the best school district in the state is the online one, everything about a home is up for discussion. From size to type to physical location.

Do people prioritize more space, leaving the crowded cities for more square footage? What about proximity to family, no longer assuming we can always freely travel by plane? Do people reassess what they are living close to, as well? Does delivery radius become a key search term in residential real estate?

But homes are just one of the trillion dollar, multi-million person shifts.

What becomes of the now empty, or at least far less full, office buildings? The economics of office space, from the schedule to repaint the parking lot to the size of the AC units, dictates that the place be full all week. Will there will be millions of square feet of what was called prime real estate just sitting empty? How long can that be the case before it is repurposed or torn down? What is a prime location if a short commute leaves many workers calculus? Not every town has a logical center or a strip of beach – a big opportunity for creative developers to reset the maps.

As we continue our drive around Near Futureville where the homes and offices have all begun to shift and change, what other buildings make far less sense than they did when they were designed – and very little sense at all since March?

The Mall?
Movie theaters? (really?)
Big box retail?
Many of the restaurants?
K-12 schools?

Add places that will continue on, but are due for a major reimagining, to the list of places slated for significant change.

Airports?
Stadiums?
College campuses?

Video killed the radio star.

– The Buggles, 1979

But, many will say, all these places cannot be simply be replaced by video. Our world is not online. It isn’t just Zoom and Netflix.

Of course it isn’t. But that’s not how change happens. The Mall did not just knock a wall out of the local shoe store. The Internet didn’t replace the Mall. Streaming movies didn’t instantly replace the movie theaters.

Video killed the commercial real estate market.

– Not quite as catchy, but I’m not a song writer, 2020

But it only takes a relatively small percentage of people – the right demographics or income or influence or youth or all of the above – to shift the culture.

Suddenly the right school will be online, where only the best young teachers with the most modern methods would apply to work, and the smartest parents know their kids must attend or be left behind.

The right job will be at home, as commuting that is now seen as necessary but annoying daily chore will seem like the prehistoric drudgery of our great-grandparents milking cows by hand.

Travel will split into private and secure or just stay home, as coach class fares that have disregarded customer experience for years will be seen as sailing in steerage. If can’t afford distanced travel options, you’ll have to fly the legacy flying buses of Delta and United, sadly.

Large crowds at stadiums? That was already a tough sell. Sports is a media product now, and the leagues have understood they are in the content business for awhile now.

Of course, nothing mentioned on the list is new. That’s why the future was already here.

Many people already shopped online, dated online, preferred binge videos and multiplayer games over booking airfares. Many parents, and certainly many students, could see the education system is a relic of a lost age and not relevant to today’s workforce. Most universities treated online education as just a video presentation of campus lectures and really were selling brand name credentials, not actual knowledge.

So while the end of the Jet Age will be full of handwringing and hand washing and loud pronouncements about freedom from people that got a solid C- in History during sophomore year, the future waits for none of us. The technologies have arrived to support more remote work, less travel, more leisure time, and less environmental impact than the days since Levittown was becoming the next America and FLY DELTA JETS meant steak and martinis, not virus protection masks and carbon emissions.